Lactose intolerant Jews, don’t be ashamed; you’re not alone. According to a new ad for Lactaid milk, 60% of Jewish Americans suffer from the painful cramps, excessive flatulence and other uncomfortable symptoms associated with the disorder.
The ad, which first appeared in the June issues of Hadassah and Reform Judaism magazines, features a picture of a woman with dotted lines on her upper lip — the place where her milk mustache should be. In the top right-hand corner, the ad inquires, “Miss Milk?” Below, the ad mentions the percentage of Jewish Americans who allegedly suffer from lactose intolerance and claims that Lactaid milk can help those with the disorder enjoy milk products without pain and discomfort.
Jews aren’t the only group affected. “Lactose tolerance is actually unusual,” said Dr. Mark Walsh, a gastroneurologist and chairman of the Pharmacy and Therapeutic Committee at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio. “A lot of adults will lose a lot of the activity of lactase” — the enzyme that breaks down lactose, the simple sugar found in milk — “as they get older.”
Other experts agree. According to the Crohns and Colitis Foundation of America’s Web site, “Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Jews in Israel and elsewhere, and most Africans and their descendants demonstrate very high levels of lactose intolerance.” The site claims that lactose tolerance is only common among northern Europeans and groups of Middle Eastern people such as Bedouins, Yemenites and Saudis.
The CCFA site and Walsh both state that researchers believe that the lactase enzyme is generally present in newborns, but then decreases within the next two years of their lives. The site states that lactase “seems to remain at normal levels only in those peoples and regions whose adult populations depended upon milk as a staple for the last few thousand years.”
But if lactose intolerance is common, Jews of Eastern European descent, as well as Asians, are still disproportionately affected. Indeed, Lactaid’s statistics may actually underestimate the disorder’s prevalence; according to the CCFA site, “80 to 97% of Jews of European descent and Asian-Americans… report symptoms when they drink… three to four glasses of milk per day.”
As with any other disease, complications vary from person to person. The CCFA site says that some will show signs of lactose intolerance after just one glass of milk, while others may be able to imbibe large quantities without problems. In addition, some foods containing milk are less problematic than others; butter and processed cheese, for example, contain almost no lactose.
The good news, Walsh says, is that products like Lactaid — both the milk, which is fortified with added lactase for easier digestion, and Lactaid pills, which can be taken before eating dairy products to reduce symptoms — can help lactose intolerant people. Yet he maintains that there is no miracle cure. “They can be helpful,” he said. “But it’s sometimes hard to calculate when and how much of the product one needs to take at a given time. If someone loves ice cream and they are lactose intolerant, they better take something — and enough of it.”